Kerlingarfjöll is one of the most precious natural attractions in Iceland. It is located on the Central Highlands and is part of an active volcanic system which features one of Iceland's most captivating geothermal areas. Kerlingarfjöll is popular for hiking in the summer and snowmobiling or snowshoeing in the winter. Read our complete guide to find out more about its thrilling natural attractions, hot springs, hiking trails and facilities.
The Icelandic Highlands
The Highlands of Iceland is an uninhabited plateau that covers most of the interior of the country. It is considered to be one of the most remote areas in Iceland and even figures among the largest uninhabited wilderness regions of all of Europe.
The 40,000-square-kilometer region is characterized by unearthly landscapes and magical serenity that attracts hikers and photographers from all over the world. Because it is considered quite remote and harsh to explore, most of the tourist crowds stay away from the Highlands. Ultimate silence and nature at its rawest await visitors here.
The Kerlingarfjöll Mountains and the Nature Reserve
The area called Kerlingarfjöll differs sharply from the surrounding environment. It is a 10,000-year-old mountain range situated in the shadow of Hofsjokull Glacier in the Central Highlands. The mountain range is part of a large, 100 km2 (39 square mile) volcanic system whose highest peak is 1,477 meters (4,846 feet) tall.
Kerlingarfjöll is famous for its picturesque rhyolite mountains topped with small glaciers where the snow and ice meet rising towers of steam. Minerals that have emerged from the hot springs color the ground red, yellow, and green. The hills constantly change color in the passing light, creating an enchanting atmosphere and an unforgettable landscape.
These features make Kerlingarfjöll one of the most precious natural attractions in Iceland. In 2017, the 367-square-kilometre Kerlingarfjöll area was declared a protected nature reserve. Today, this extraordinary site is popular for hiking in the summer and snowmobiling or snowshoeing in the winter.
The Hveradalir Geothermal Area
Kerlingarfjöll is part of an active volcanic system and features three large geothermal areas. Hveradalir, the “valley of hot springs,” is the most well-known of them and is located within the mountain range. It is one of the largest and most captivating geothermal areas in Iceland.
Hveradalir is found some 5 kilometers (3.1 miles) from the Highland resort in Ásgarður Valley. In summer, you can either hike there from the hotel or drive to a parking lot near the geothermal area.
The variety of colors and the landscape are breathtaking. The site features odd tuff stone pillars and plenty of stunning marks from volcanic activity. Steaming vents, clay geysers, and bubbling hot springs can be found all over the valley which, in turn, is surrounded by yellow and red rhyolite mountains, smooth valleys, and snowy mountain ridges.
The area is somewhat reminiscent of Landmannalaugar, another geothermal oasis in South Iceland. Out of the two spots, Landmannalaugar much more well-known and, therefore, more frequently visited while Hveradalir remains a remote hidden gem.
Steaming vents and snow-capped mountain in the Hveradalir Geothermal Area. Photo: rheins
The Kerlingarfjöll Hot Spring
There is a hot spring in Kerlingarfjöll that is suitable for bathing. It is located in a small valley, approximately 1.5 kilometers (0.9 miles) from the hotel. The path is marked and follows a small river. Originally, it was a test drill to find out if there was hot enough water to heat the houses. The geothermal pool is made of stones and fits 10 to 15 people. The water is rich in iron and has a temperature of around 34-37°C (93-38°F) with the warmest spots being found in the middle.
There are no changing facilities so it is a good idea to take a drybag with you to keep your clothes dry while bathing. After using the pool, please make sure not to leave any waste, swimsuits, or underwear behind.
History and Folk Tales From Kerlingarfjöll
The Ugly Old Troll Lady
The name Kerlingarfjöll, which translates to “Old Lady Mountain,” comes from a folk tale. It is about an old, ugly female troll who wandered around the area until the daylight caught her and turned her into stone. More precisely, it is a 25-meter (82 feet) tuff tower which remains to decorate the valley today.
The First People in Kerlingarfjöll
In old times, Kerlingarfjöll was considered a rather unfriendly place. People thought that the region was full of trolls or outlaws. Due to both this and the harsh road conditions, Kerlingarfjöll was not explored for centuries.
The first scientists visited the mountains in 1890. Later on, in the next century, the nearby Kjölur Road was constructed, connecting the north and the south of the country. This made it possible for the first vehicle to enter Ásgarður Valley in 1936, which is the site where the Kerlingarfjöll resort is located today.
A Popular Summer Ski Resort
In the 1960s, a group of local tourists explored the great features of the area and soon established a summer ski school in the mountains. It instantly became a popular recreational site. Over the following decades, new buildings were built, hot springs were discovered, boreholes were drilled, and a number of hiking trails were constructed.
Sadly, by the time the millennium rolled around, global warming destroyed the summer ski school. The snow layer became thinner year after year until it was no longer enough to maintain a summer ski facility. What emerged from under the snow, however, was a matchless beauty that features spectacular geographical curiosities.
Today, Kerlingarfjöll has blossomed into one of Iceland’s most precious “off the beaten path” travel destinations. It is one of the most highly valued spots in the Highlands for locals and foreign travelers alike.
Facilities in Kerlingarfjöll
In the year 2000, a highland resort was opened in Ásgarður valley offering food services and a variety of accommodation to every type of traveler.
A Hotel With a Hot Tub and Private Facilities
For those who prefer comfort, a cozy hotel has recently been built that offers 20 double rooms with beds, bedding, and private bathrooms. There is an outdoor hot tub available for hotel guests on site.
Chalets and Options for Sleeping Bag Accommodation
There are ten cute year-round chalets, each with one to four rooms, private toilets, and beds with bedding provided. In a separate building, warm showers and warm water basins are available for guests.
Sleeping bag accommodation is available in three larger chalets with shared bathrooms and space for up to 56 people.
A Campsite With a View
During the summer, a spacious campsite awaits hikers with its breathtaking view. Camping guests have access to bathrooms and an indoor kitchen and dining area.
Please note that Kerlingarfjöll is a highly protected nature reserve and is infamous for its violent winds and storms. Camping here requires high-quality equipment. Wild camping and sleeping in the wilderness are neither allowed nor safe in this region.
The restaurant offers a rich breakfast, lunch, and dinner to its guests. The menu mainly consists of traditional Icelandic meals such as lamb or seafood. Cold sandwiches are available as take away for hikers and the restaurant also offers alcoholic beverages of wine and Icelandic beer.
The Best Time to Visit Kerlingarfjöll
For those who would like to drive themselves or take the bus to Kerlingarfjöll to hike or camp in the area, the only available time period is between late June and early September. This is when the Highland roads are open and drivable.
The valley and the mountains reveal their beautiful colors in summer and the weather becomes friendlier. This is the most comfortable period of the year for hiking in the area. Most visitors arrive during the summer.
For about nine months per year, the whole region is covered in snow. The highland resort, however, does not close for winter. The hotel and the huts are heated and are available for booking all year round.
The area is no less spectacular in its winter coat and is an exceptionally good location for Northern Lights watching. Hot spring bathing, snowshoeing, and hiking are also possible with the proper precautions and with special equipment such as spikes or crampons. These are made available on site for tour guests.
Because the roads cannot be driven by rental cars in winter, the only option is to get there by booking a Superjeep tour to Kerlingarfjöll. Because of this, the number of visitors in winter is very low, making this place the ultimate paradise for those who like to escape the crowds and enjoy the peace of the endless tundra.
Hiking in Kerlingarfjöll
A group of 1,100 to 1,500-meter tall peaks crowns the geothermal valley. The largest ones are Loðmundur (1,432 meters / 4,698 feet), Snækollur (the highest at 1,482 meters / 4,862 feet) and Fannborg (1,448 meters / 4,750 feet).
The area offers amazing options for day hikes. There are around 20 walking paths but only eight of them are marked. The length of the trails varies from 1 to 50 kilometers. The shorter trails lead around the geothermal area and the longest ones circumnavigate the entire mountain range.
Snækollur: The Highest Peak
Snækollur, the highest peak at 1,482 meters / 4,862 feet, is not a difficult climb. The elevation gain from the start of the trail is 640 meters (2,099 feet). However, the path is mostly on snow with melting glacial ice underneath, so precaution is needed! From mid to late summer, the very top of Snækollur is usually free from snow. The hike from the car park to the top and back is around 7 kilometers (4.3 miles) in length.
If the weather is good, the view from Snækollur is extraordinary. It is one of the best panoramic viewpoints in all of Iceland! One can enjoy a 360º view over almost half of the country to the south and the north!
There are three popular variations for exploring the geothermal valley. The two shorter ones are 1.5 kilometers (0.9 miles) and 3 kilometers (1.8 miles) long. They both pass many fascinating spots and hot springs quite up close.
The longer hike, called Hveradalahringur or the “Hveradalur Ring,” is 8 kilometers (4.97 miles) long with an elevation gain of 150 meters (492 feet). This trail is unmarked so make sure you have the right equipment to navigate it yourself. In good weather, navigating is not a problem but thick fog and poor visual conditions can kick in at any time.
There are plenty of other hikes in the area, both marked and unmarked. One could spend days traversing these surreal mountains and valleys. Detailed maps are available at the highland resort. If you are planning on hiking in the Icelandic Highlands, be sure to have a GPS device with you. Network coverage is unstable in the mountains so your mobile phone GPS may not be enough.
Where the ice and fire meet: a glacier approaching the steamy valley. Photo: Laurent Deschodt
How to Get to Kerlingarfjöll
The Highland roads open any time between mid and late June and usually close around the beginning of September. This depends on the actual weather and road conditions, though. When the roads are open, Kerlingarfjöll is accessible via road F-35, also called the Kjölur Route or Kjalvegur, from both North and South Iceland.
For those who prefer to take a self-drive tour, it takes approximately 3,5 hours from Reykjavík without stopping. Take the road 36 towards the Golden Circle and follow it to Thingvellir. After driving around the Thingvallavatn lake, take the road 365 and which will become road 37 after a few kilometers. Following the road 37 then 35, you will pass the Geysir Geothermal area and Gullfoss waterfall. From Gullfoss, the road will become an F-road. The first part of the road is quite nice, but after a few kilometers, it becomes unpaved and rough.
The road leads across the Central Highlands, between the two glaciers, Langjökull and Hofsjökull. Road signs will warn you when you will need to leave F-35 and take F-347. Before reaching the valley, there are two unbridged streams to cross, one shallow and one deeper.
From Akureyri in North of Iceland, the journey takes slightly longer. Follow the Ring Road (road 1) towards Reykjavík 118 kilometers. From here, take the road F-35 to the south and then change to F-347 until you reach the highland resort.
Due to the river crossings and the generally challenging road conditions, this trip is only doable for larger 4X4 vehicles. When renting a car, make sure that you go over your travel plans with your rental car provider. Not all cars are suitable for driving Highland roads or for crossing rivers.
Renting a car is a great way to discover the remote Highlands alone but requires a lot of preparation and precaution. It is crucial to keep yourself informed about the weather forecast and road conditions as road closures can occur even in summer.
On the Highland Bus
In summer, those who do not want to drive themselves can take the Highland bus from Reykjavík, the capital city, or Akureyri, in North Iceland. This is a specialized all-terrain bus with large wheels. It stops at several places in South Iceland before reaching the Highlands, including a stop at the mountain resort in Kerlingarfjöll. The Highland buses run daily between late June and the end of August.
Getting to Kerlingarfjöll in Winter
The terrain is so wild in winter that visiting Kerlingarfjöll between October and May is only possible via a guided tour. There is no rental car that could make this journey and rental companies would not allow you to drive it even if the conditions were perfect. The weather in the Highlands is extremely unstable in winter and meters of snow can fall overnight.
Fortunately, there are some amazing multi-day tours which go to Kerlingarfjöll in wintertime. One such tour includes a guided tour around Iceland’s famous Golden Circle, an adventurous Superjeep ride to the Highlands driven by specially skilled local experts, includes all meals and hotel accommodation, guided hikes, snowshoeing, snowmobiling, and several baths in natural hot springs. Offering a very good chance of seeing the Aurora from the most remote place in the middle of Iceland, a winter trip to Kerlingarfjöll can just as exciting as a summer hike.
A Map of Kerlingarfjöll
Here is an interactive map of the Central Highlands area. The map shows you the Kjölur Route (F-35) and the road to the Ásgarður Valley (F-347). You can also find the Highland resort, a hot spring, the Hveradalir and Hverabotn Geothermal Areas, three of the highest peaks, and two glaciers.
The Weather in the Icelandic Highlands
Due to the higher altitudes, the Highlands is the coldest and windiest region in Iceland. The soil in the tundra remains frozen and is likely to be covered by snow for eight or nine months of the year.
Winds can be stronger than they are around the coastlines and the temperatures are usually somewhat colder than in other parts of the country. In winter, the average temperatures stay around -5 to -10°C (14-23°F). In summer, they do not often rise above 10 to 15°C (50-59°F).
You can find the weather forecast for the Central Highlands Region on the Icelandic Meteorological Office’s website. For a more detailed weather forecast for Kerlingarfjöll, visit this mountain forecast site.
Recommended Gear for Kerlingarfjöll Visitors
Hiking in the Icelandic Highlands requires good quality equipment. This includes:
- Waterproof, windproof shell layers, both trousers and jackets
- A breathable insulating layer, fleece sweater, and/or down jacket
- A breathable, fast drying and comfortable outdoor undergarment (not cotton)
- Sturdy, waterproof hiking boots
- Gloves and a hat
- A scarf or a buff
- GPS and a map
- A swimsuit and a towel
- A warm, windproof, waterproof parka with a good hood
- Spikes or hiking crampons (available on site for tour guests)
- A sturdy 3 or 4-season tent
- Extra stakes
- A mattress with very good insulation
- A sleeping bag with a comfort rating of 0-5°C (32°F)
Safety and Travel Etiquette
Always remember that the natural environment is as delicate as it is enchanting. The slightest damage can cause irreversible erosion that can easily spread over a larger area. Therefore, driving off-road and driving on designated paths is illegal everywhere in Iceland and is punishable by heavy fines.
Walking off the hiking paths is also to be avoided, especially where there is moss or any vegetation around.
Always be sure you can navigate for yourself in the poorest visual conditions, even without network coverage. If you plan on going for a hike alone, always leave your travel plan behind.
Check the weather forecast, road conditions, and safety warnings before you hit the road. Get more tips on safetravel.is.